NEW YORK -- A former New York City police officer committed no crime when he fantasized online about committing horrific acts of sexual violence against his wife and others, including bizarre exchanges about kidnapping and eating women, a divided federal appeals court said Thursday.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said in its 2-to-1 ruling that a lower-court Manhattan judge correctly reversed a 2013 jury's guilty verdict on a kidnapping conspiracy charge against Gilberto Valle, 31, that could have sent him to prison for life. The case had earned Valle tabloid infamy as the "cannibal cop."
"We are loathe to give the government the power to punish us for our thoughts and not our actions," wrote Circuit Judge Barrington D. Parker for the majority. "That includes the power to criminalize an individual's expression of sexual fantasies, no matter how perverse or disturbing. Fantasizing about committing a crime, even a crime of violence against a real person whom you know, is not a crime."
The decision acknowledged that fantasies of violence against women "contribute to a culture of exploitation, a massive social harm that demeans women," but the court added that "not every harm is meant to be addressed with the federal criminal law."
The 2nd Circuit also reversed Valle's conviction on a misdemeanor charge of using a restricted law enforcement database to secretly look up personal information about women he knew.
The ruling upheld U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe's decision to reverse the jury verdict after finding no genuine agreement to kidnap. The appeals court noted Valle provided online "a veritable avalanche of false, fictitious, and fantastical information concerning himself and the steps he had allegedly taken to facilitate a kidnapping."
In a dissent, Circuit Judge Chester Straub said his colleagues had enshrined "all the conduct in this case in an academic protective halo." He said he would reinstate the kidnapping conspiracy conviction and leave the misdemeanor conviction intact.
"This is not a case about governmental intrusion on one's personal inclinations and fantasies nor is it a case about governmental punishment of one's thoughts. It is, instead, a jury's determination of guilt for a conspiracy based on definitive conduct," Straub wrote.
He said the judges had presented "eloquent prose on the importance of protecting thoughts from criminal punishment," but said the words were irrelevant "because the jury did not convict Valle for fantasizing."
At sentencing last year, Valle apologized to women he wrote about in fetish chat rooms.
"I just hope they know they were never in danger," said Valle, who served 20 months in jail awaiting trial. "I would never do the things I talked about on the Internet - never."
Prosecutors declined comment.
In a statement, Valle's lawyers said the decision confirms that fantasies, even repugnant ones, are not crimes.
"This ruling is a very important victory not just for Mr. Valle, who has now been cleared of all criminal charges, but for an open society that treasures freedom of thought and expression," the statement said.
Appeals court upholds acquittal of former NYPD officer dubbed 'Cannibal Cop'